Sunday, 26 February 2012

Greek vegan (Βίγκαν)

Tomorrow, Clean Monday (Kathara Deftera - Καθαρά Δευτέρα) is the start of the 50-day vegan period in the Greek Orthodox fasting calendar; shellfish are allowed.

Different societies have different ways of classifying food. Nowhere does this become an issue of imminent importance than in a communal kitchen:
Cooking a meal in the communal kitchen also created feelings of distrust: should it be shared? if so, how much money should each flatter fork out to cover the meal? who cleans up afterwards? does the meal cater for everyone's taste, needs, idiosyncracies? low-calorie, kosher, carb-free, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, environmentally friendly, fair trade, politically correct?
This issue also causes confusion for travellers. For example, in Western societies, people who don't eat meat like to know if what they are eating is suitable for vegetarians, or, to take it one step further, if it is suitable for vegans. Although Greek food products now increasingly carry labels with some of the above-mentioned, the vegetarian-vegan label - and the difference between them - is still an issue that hasn't been fully resolved here, mainly because Greeks don't view food in this way: yes, there are vegetarians (χορτοφάγοι - hortofagi) in Greece, as well as vegans (βίγκαν), but I'd say the latter are rare, and judging by the transliteration of 'vegan' from English to Greek (rather than a true Greek word for the concept), it is more likely that the Greek notion of vegan is still under construction. At any rate, being a vegan is a conscious choice, for whatever reason; no society in the world is raised as a vegan from birth. Avoiding meat, fish, eggs, all dairy products and even honey (because it's produced by an animal) every single day of your life sounds, to put it mildly, unnatural. Babies cannot make a choice about being vegan, so the choice is made by their carers. France and New Zealand have both suffered fatalities associated with extreme vegan diets being forced on babies (in combination with bad parenting); having said that, advice about how to raise a vegan baby abounds on the web.

to kima paleohora hania chania
Taverna menus often mention the lathera dishes, but not necessarily the nistisima.
In my blog, I never use the 'vegetarian' or 'vegan' label. This is deliberate: traditional Greek food is never distinguished in this way (despite the fact that recent Greek food trends tend to point in this global direction). I only use the 'lenten' label, ie it can be eaten during the Greek fasting periods. In Greek cuisine, the 'vegan' aspect of the cuisine is usually denoted as νηστίσιμα: nistIsima, meaning lenten, or λαδερά: latherA, meaning 'oily food', which is usually plant-based, containing mainly vegetables, tomato and olive oil. The 'lathera' term also appears on menu cards. But 'lathera' causes confusion for tourists who are vegetarians and want some dairy in their food, or vegans who didn't expect to find shell fish included in the 'nistisima' fare. The reason for this is because nistisima and lathera are usually what Greek people eat when they want to fast for religious reasons (according to the norms of the Greek Orthodox Church).

Predominantly vegan - my Kathara Deftera meal: vegetarian spring rolls, baked chickpeas, guacomole, chestnut stew, rice - and some seafood.
Another point of confusion for travellers with special dietary needs who prefer to prepare their own meals rather than eat out all the time is what they can expect to find available for their vegetarian/vegan needs at Greek supermarkets. I can safely say that most internationally well-known food is available in Cretan supermarkets - but NOT in the variety or at the price you would expect! Chinese food is expensive here, whether you want to eat out, or buy it at the supermarket. Not only that, but there is little variety to choose from: most Asian food products carry the Blue Dragon label, which puts me off buying anything - how on earth is one label dominating this section of the supermarket?! Tofu (a tasteless commodity in my opinion) is rarely found anywhere in Greece except large urban centres, ie Athens, Thessaloniki (?) and possibly Iraklio (??), and only in specialised stores (eg organic markets). Things like vegan burgers and vegan sausages simply do not exist in Crete; they do not form any part of the traditional Greek cuisine. This kind of food is seen in a negative light, and it's easy to see why: the word 'sausage' or 'burger' does not collocate well with vegetarian - it is associated with 'meat'.

Convenience vegan food does exist in Greek cuisine, with an added bonus: you always get what you see pictured on the packet.
So, no one is vegan in Greece, right? Not exactly. For religious reasons, most people, whether they are religious or not, will adhere to the traditional Greek Orthodox fast at some point in the year. But they can include shellfish in their 'vegan' diet, can't they? Yes - if they can afford it, and if they actually like it (not everyone likes seafood). But being a Greek vegan is not confined to eating during a fasting period. Most meals that I cook at home during the working week are in fact vegan. The day I wrote this post, I had cooked fasolada, and made marathopites for an evening snack - they are both completely vegan. After our evening meal, my daughter asked me for some chocolate, but I found that we had none in the house. I could tell she was craving for something sweet. I always have a selection of my own home-made spoon sweets in the house. She loved the quince desert: again, it was completely vegan. This was served with Cretan mountain tea - it is a vegan drink because it's not common to add milk to this kind of tea. But we aren't actually vegans - we aren't even vegetarians! Our vegan-looking meals are often served with some form of dairy during the week (notably feta cheese or boiled eggs), while truly carnivorous meals are cooked at the weekend when we have more time to cook - and savour - meat meals. In essence, we are never completely vegan - although most days of the week, we are actually vegetarian.

Even though we often prepare vegan meals in our house, we are not actually vegans: fennel pies, bean soup, quince desert and mountain tea (milk is not usually added to it). These meals were prepared and/or eaten on the same evening.

When you're on holiday, you want to enjoy your time away, and cooking meals from scratch cannot always be a priority. What can vegans do when holidaying in Greece to reduce their workload and cut down on outdoor eating expenses? If they're coming to Crete, then they have a plethora of fresh fruit and vegetables to choose from, as well as local specialties like paximathi, the dry bread-like rusk that is made into the now popular Greek (not just Cretan) dakos, which isn't vegan (you can tell the taverna owner to omit the cheese from your dakos, but I won't blame him if he gives you a funny look). Vegans will be pleased to know that some of the Greek vegan taverna specialities are also sold in the canned and frozen sections of the supermarket, among them dolmadakia (stuffed vine leaves), gigandes (baked beans), agginares a la polita (artichokes in lemon sauce), and bamies (okra in red sauce). You may be wondering who wants to buy these foods when most Greeks would cook them from scratch. I can think of quite a few categories: people who lead busy lives (notably working mothers), shepherds and cheese makers who live for a long time in remote areas with no creature comforts, hunters on long trips in remote countryside, campers, extreme sports people, picnickers, etc.

Above: bagged frozen meals ready to cook straight from the packet; paximathi (rusk, a very popular alternative to bread); spoon sweets for desert. Below: more Greek dishes, canned and ready to heat and eat (they don't need cooking, unlike the frozen dishes).

One thing I've learnt about vegan meals is that it is very important for vegans to find a way to obtain enough protein, which non-vegetarians get from meat. Vegans eat beans and grains for this reason. Beans require quite a bit of time to cook: some need overnight soaking while others need a long cooking time. In this case, vegans are out of luck in a place like Crete: canned beans (ie ready to use in a meal) are never sold here. This is because of the Greek culinary culture - beans constitute an integral weekly meal cooked at home, and these dishes are always cooked from scratch with dried beans. Red kidney beans and English-style baked beans are sold in cans, but this is an exception: they are not considered part of Greek cuisine, and are treated as novelty imported products; hence, few people buy them, and naturally, they are expensive, like Chinese dried noodles. You will be hard-pressed to find canned chickpeas or white beans in a Cretan supermarket, which are sold de rigeur in most western countries.

The above choices (packaged rice medleys, Asian food, and dried sous) are all considered internationally known convenience food. I would use them when I need to - but I also know that they are sold at much higher prices than in countries where these products are used as staples in everyday cooking, so I avoid them.

I personally believe that you can't find a greater variety of non-meat, non-fish, non-dairy products than a place like Crete - but if you are looking for specific ingredients to cook with which never feature in Greek cuisine (eg tamarind, tofu, kombuchi, seaweed, etc) or processed prepared vegan food which is made specifically for vegans, you won't find it here, because it is regarded as totally foreign, kind of like a Greek person expecting to find a souvlaki shop while touring a place like Thailand. You will be able to find all the ingredients needed to cook any kind of meal you like (I often cook Asian stir-fries from scratch), but if you really want your specialised convenience foods, you will have to carry them with you in your suitcase.

I I can't fool my family with vegan food: pilafi rice (not vegan because it was cooked in chicken broth, but nevertheless, no meat), lentil soup, cabbage-stuffed spring rolls, olives and bread. But a meal at our house does not feel complete without cheese on the table.

UPDATE: The February 2012 edition of Gastronomos carries a recipe for vegan sausages: watch this space!

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